When Taiwan abruptly canceled plans to present at the Venice Biennale, its organizers looked to history for a solution

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The toast to the opening of the Taiwan exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale almost never happened. The show was on the verge of being canceled after its organizers were forced to abandon their initial plans just two weeks before their proposal submission deadline. Yet they were there with dozens of supporters, raising glasses at the Palazzo delle Prigioni in San Marco.

“Due to the situation in Taiwan, the Venice Biennale is a very important platform for us. If we don’t come, we will lose the chance to have a dialogue with international communities,” Jun-Jieh Wang, the director of the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts, which organized the show, told Artnet News. “We can’t give up.”

The exhibit is a late-breaking archival exhibit titled “Impossible Dreams” that traces the history of Taiwan’s appearances in Venice since 1995, first as a national pavilion before being downgraded to a side event, and from group exhibitions to solo presentations.

Installation view of “Impossible Dreams”, Taiwan’s side event at the Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Taipei Museum of Fine Arts.

The problems began last December when a series of sexual assault allegations against Sakuliu Pavavaljung, the artist originally selected to represent the self-governing island in the exhibition, emerged online. The 61-year-old award-winning Indigenous artist could have fit the theme of this year’s Venice Biennale. But the scandal quickly escalated, with more than 1,000 art workers condemning the artist and calling for his exhibition to be cancelled. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum had to decide quickly; district attorneys had already opened an investigation.

“It was a very difficult situation. But it is a very sensitive subject, and it goes beyond a moral issue because it involves a criminal investigation,” Wang said. “We have decided to end the partnership. in mid-December Couldn’t find another artist in such a short time after spending almost two years working with [Pavavaljung].”

Even if there was enough time, the chances of another artist agreeing were highly unlikely, as no one wanted to be the filler artist after such a serious scandal erupted, Wang said.

The team quickly imagined the archival exhibition.

“The archives are easily accessible. It’s easy to assemble and set up, in terms of transport and logistics,” said Patrick Flores, initially hired as curator of Pavavaljung’s exhibition.

Curator Okwui Enwezor visited the Taiwan exhibition at the 48th Venice Biennale.  Courtesy of Taipei Museum of Fine Arts.

Curator Okwui Enwezor at the Taiwan exhibition at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. Courtesy of the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts.

The Politics of the Venice Biennale

As war in Ukraine haunts the Venice Biennale this year, Taiwan faces its own military threats from China, a close ally of Russia it was deployment of fighter jets in Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan’s existence, self-governing since the Kuomintang political party fled the mainland after losing its war against the Chinese Communist Party, has long been a point of political contention. China, which claims Taiwan as a province, has stepped it up in recent months, leading some to see parallels with Russia and Ukraine.

“Of course, there’s a war going on that involves one country invading another, and then naturally people outside of Taiwan would ask, what about China-Taiwan relations? Is it very similar?” Wang said.

The answers to these questions are complicated, even in Taiwan, the museum director said.

While on the one hand there are concerns about whether China will invade Taiwan, there are also pro-Beijing voices within the island who favor maintaining close ties with China.

“We hope to foster a dialogue with international communities through art,” he said. “There shouldn’t be just one voice, one perspective.”

Letter from La Biennale di Venezia inviting Taiwan to participate in the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995. Courtesy of the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts.

Letter from La Biennale di Venezia inviting Taiwan to participate in the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995. Courtesy of the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts.

One of the highlights of “Impossible Dreams” is a 1995 letter from Gian Luigi Rondi of the Venice Biennale to curator Tsai Ching-fen inviting Taiwan to participate in the biennale for its centenary. The event was a milestone, marking Taiwan’s entry onto the world stage less than a decade after lifting its three-decade martial law order in 1987.

The following years saw Taiwan stage group exhibitions as its national pavilion. Things changed in 2003 when Taiwan was stripped of its flag status after successful protests from China (which got its own national flag but had to cancel after the Sars outbreak). Taiwan then ran into a side event, but organizers never gave up, even taking a long-term lease in a former San Marco prison.

So even as a side event, Taiwan has a role to play. “The guarantee is a symptom of a void, filling a void that needs to be filled,” Flores said.

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